You have been hearing for years that stress isn’t good for you, and that it can lead to heart attacks, strokes, and cancer. What you may not realize is that stress has a hugely negative effect on your digestive system. It’s not just the big stressful events, like moving or losing your job, that can wreak havoc on your digestion, but the everyday stressors of life can also make you run for the Rolaids.

Can stress really have that big of an effect on your digestion? The answer is yes. Your body does not easily manage stress and digest food simultaneously. You are wired this way for some good reasons.

The physiologic stress response is your body’s survival mechanism, also known as the fight or flight response. When you are being attacked, your body is not concerned with digesting food. Instead, it will garner all of its energy to focus on the attack at hand. Depending on the severity of the attack, this may cause your digestion to completely shut off, leaving the food in your gut un-metabolized.

In the case of a less severe attack, your digestive system still slows way down and could cause you to suffer in a number of ways. Low-grade stressors that can impact your metabolism include a poor diet, certain medications, work-related anxiety, a lack of sleep, or negative thoughts, just to name a few.

Read on to learn about 4 ways that stress impacts your digestion!

1. Stress Affects Gut Peristalsis

When you eat, you want your food to be in your digestive system for a certain length of time. This allows your gut to absorb the nutrients it needs, and, at the same time, allows it to get rid of any waste. As we’ve seen, when you are stressed, digestion can literally shut down. This can lead to constipation. Constipation interrupts the detoxification process that naturally happens during normal digestion. This can lead to a whole host of problems including gas, bloating, stomach pain, and weight gain.

Stress can also have the opposite effect on your digestive tract. For some constitutions, it can cause food to move too quickly through your system, not leaving enough time for the nutrients to be absorbed, which leads to nutritional deficiencies.

From a Mind Body Nutrition perspective, the digestive system is your body’s barometer–it tells you how you are handling life. You need to get to the root of what is causing your stress in order to heal your symptoms. For example, if you are dealing with constipation, it might help to ask yourself where in life you are unable to let go. What thoughts or experiences are you having that are causing you to contract? Are you holding on to something that you need to let go of? Questions like these can help you find the root cause that your constipation is stemming from.

2. Stress Causes Heartburn

Heartburn affects 20% of our population, and the biggest selling over-the-counter medications are digestive aids. That means that there are way too many people dealing with daily digestive discomfort.

The physiologic stress response can cause the sphincter that closes off the esophagus from the stomach to spasm. When this happens, stomach acid can make its way back up into the esophagus, causing it to burn the esophageal lining. Over time, this can leave you in a lot of pain – and more prone to disease. Taking heartburn medication will be a temporary relief, as it decreases or stops the production of stomach acid all together. Once you stop taking the medication, however, chances are the heartburn will return, unless you have uncovered the reason that you have heartburn in the first place. Many people associate heartburn with poor diet, smoking, and drinking alcohol, but your negative self-talk and your fast paced schedule can also be to blame.

Dynamic Eating Psychology teaches that your digestive symptoms can open the door to where in life you need to heal. For example, if you constantly have heartburn, and you aren’t eating the common food triggers, you can ask yourself where in life have you been “burned.” Could you be holding a grudge, a resentment, or a fear?

This type of emotional stress can really “eat you up” from the inside, and lead to physical discomfort. If you are questioning whether your thoughts can affect your physicality, then think of something that makes you angry and notice how your heartbeat instantly rises. These negative emotions can create a constant low level of stress, which often presents as heartburn. Conversely, taking the time to notice feelings, process them, and then let them go, can lead us back into emotional balance, which will have a profound effect on how we digest both food and life!

3. Stress Affects Gut Immunity

Did you know that roughly 60-80% of your body’s immunity is housed in your gut? This makes your digestive system the largest immune organ in your body. Considering that if you spread the area of your digestive system out, it would more than cover a tennis court, it’s time to pay this part of the body some due respect!

You can have pounds (yes, pounds!) of bacteria in your gut. Some of it is good bacteria, and some of it is not so good. Your good bacteria helps you to fight off viruses, helps you to digest your food, and helps to produce chemical reactions to help your brain and body function properly. This good bacteria is vital to your body’s immune function.

When you are in a stress response, the chemical reaction that is produced by the sympathetic nervous system wipes out a large proportion of your good gut bacteria. Over time, this can lead to a weakened immune system, and overall inflammation of the body.

You can strengthen your immune system by taking a probiotic supplement; eating foods that naturally contain probiotics, such as kefir, kimchi, and yogurt; and limiting foods with refined sugar. Sugar feeds the bad bacteria in your gut, which can lead to not only a weaker immune system, but low energy, low mood, digestive disorders, weight gain, and more.

4. Stress Can Weaken Your Digestive Metabolism

Another way the stress response can affect your digestive system is by decreasing overall blood flow to the body. When you are stressed, your blood flow is redirected to the brain and to the limbs, as the body perceives you are under attack. You need the blood directed to those parts of your body for quick thinking and fighting or fleeing. If your body is stressed while you are eating, due to eating too fast, eating in a negative emotional state, or eating too much, then it can cause your metabolism to slow down.

Stress chemistry produces two hormones that are part of this whole process – cortisol and insulin. These hormones that are released when you are stressed tell the body to store weight, store fat, and not build muscle.
What can you do to avoid this happening in your body? Slow down and breathe! The best state for your body to metabolize food is when it’s present and relaxed.

The next time you notice your digestive system shouting out for attention through the symptoms of constipation, heartburn, a stomach bug, or a few extra pounds, honor this intricate, wise and helpful system, and you may be rewarded with many years of good health ahead!

If you want to further explore your own relationship with stress and eating, consider our program Transform Your Relationship with Food.

Warm Regards,

The Institute for the Psychology of Eating
© Institute For The Psychology of Eating, All Rights Reserved, 2014

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About The Author
Emily Rosen

Emily Rosen is the Director of the Institute for the Psychology of Eating, where she oversees business development strategies, student affairs, marketing and public relations in addition to her role as Senior Teacher. With an extensive and varied background in nutritional science, counseling, natural foods, the culinary arts, conscious sex education, mind body practices, business management and marketing, Emily brings a unique skill-set to her role at the Institute. She has also been a long-term director and administrator for Weight Loss Camps and Programs serving teens and adults and has held the position of Executive Chef at various retreat centers. Her passion for health and transformation has provided her the opportunity to teach, counsel, manage, and be at the forefront of the new wave of professionals who are changing the way we understand the science and psychology of eating and sexuality. Emily is also co -founder of the Institute for Conscious Sexuality and Relationship.